The year was 1992. Bill Clinton had won the Presidential election, and he was preparing to make appointments to fill Cabinet positions. The leading candidate for Secretary of Education was an African-American woman who was head of his transition team for education, labor and the humanities, Johnnetta Cole. She was President of Spelman College in Atlanta, a highly regarded institution for black women, and sat on the boards of many corporations, including the Atlanta based Coca-Cola, and Merck pharmaceuticals. She currently is Director of the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. If you Google or Bing her name, there will be scores of sites linking to her solid establishment pedigree.
Only one thing is left out, and seems nowhere to be found. That is her longstanding ties to the Communist Party of the United States. That was not the case as Clinton was preparing to assume the presidency. Using material furnished to him by various sources, David Twersky, then Washington editor of the Jewish Forward, revealed the hidden story of Cole’s then recent past. Cole, he revealed, had held leadership positions in the pro-Castro Venceremos Brigades, a group that sent American volunteers to work in Cuba in support of the Cuban regime. She also held a major position on the Executive Board of the U.S. Peace Council, the pro-Soviet affiliate of the World Peace Council, the “peace” organization of the Communist bloc. As the Twersky articles reverberated through Washington, Cole responded that “right-wing extremists” were after her because she had opposed the war in Vietnam and Reagan’s invasion of Grenada.
Cole was being more than disingenuous. The Forward was not a right-wing paper; indeed, it had editorially endorsed Clinton for president. As for Cole, she was not part of the mainstream opposition to the war in Vietnam, but a far-left radical who supported a Vietnamese Communist victory. When the folk-singer Joan Baez circulated a petition condemning the North Vietnamese government for human rights violations and political repression, Cole signed a petition denouncing Baez as “immoral.” Printed as an ad by the U.S. Peace Council in The New York Times, it asserted that under Communist rule, Vietnam “now enjoys human rights as it has never known in history.” As for Grenada, she was not simply an opponent of the Reagan policy, but president of the U.S.-Grenada Friendship Society, a Communist front group that offered support to the Marxist-Leninist regime of Maurice Bishop. Under her signature, the group issued a statement that spoke of “a history of U.S. aggression and genocidal practices against people of color around the world,” and that said America’s “hidden agenda” was to “destroy all enemies of corporate America.”
What did the Clinton team do with this news? First, the woman who would be the first press secretary of the new President, Dee Dee Myers, explained that the charges were simply “silly,” and was “something we’re just not concerned about.” An aide to Al Gore said that Cole had suffered an “unfair smear.” Samuel Berger, soon to be named Deputy National Security Advisor, said this hullabaloo was about the “distant past.” In a column in The New York Post, its editorial page editor, the late Eric Breindel, wrote that if Cole got an appointment, it would send an “inescapable” message that the Clinton administration was not “interested in distinguishing between a Left-liberal and someone who cast her lot with the cause of Communist totalitarianism.” In response, Jesse Jackson replied that “Jewish complaints” had harmed her chances for a Cabinet post.
The bottom line was that Bill Clinton, as he had with the also controversial Lani Guinier, did not stand by Johnnetta Cole. He did not remove her from the transition team. Other Clinton appointees-including Donna Shalala and Marian Wright Edelman, had both served with Cole on the Board of Trustees of Spelman College and Clinton did not want to offend them. But just as Cole’s chief supporters in New York, Susan Thomases and Harold Ickes Jr. were preparing a party to honor her for gaining the spot as Secretary of Education, Cole was told that it was not to be. Appointing someone as a Cabinet secretary whose pro-Communist positions were so open was something the new president was not about to risk.